life, poetry, teaching, Uncategorized, writing

Personas I’ve Known: Becoming “Bubba”

Lately, I’ve been writing a lot of persona poetry — that magical brand of literary method acting wherein I adopt the voice and features of another person (or animal, or tree, or whatever) and write poems from their perspectives. It’s a lot of fun, wearing a mask of sorts, and I can see why my oldest son so badly wants to be a theater major in college.

But this walking about in others’ skin has had another effect on me. It has caused me to reflect upon times in my life where I’ve decided on identities that were, shall we say, less than authentic. As an undergraduate, I occupied the “poor, dumb country boy” role quite well. This persona gave my professors the impression I was a small-town hick that couldn’t possibly pass their classes. In some cases, it gave me an easy out when a class required too much effort on my part: “Dr. Willard, I’m sorry, but I’m just a poor, dumb country boy, and I don’t get a thing about physical science. Can I just get my D and go?” Other times, I loved shocking professors who’d jumped to conclusions. Sometimes I made A’s, and other times I’d posit something into class discussion that was unexpectedly profound or showed great insight. Their facial expressions were dumbstruck and priceless, and this was part of the thrill.

Occasionally, it’s good to be “Bubba.”

My parents and grandparents would have been horrified by this acting on my part; they’d reared me to be genteel, cultured, refined, and above all, honest. I’d had a great deal of training despite my rural roots, from piano and classical guitar lessons to extensive travel opportunities. I knew all too well which fork to use at formal dinners and how to comport myself in a variety of diverse social circumstances. So for me to effect this ill-bred image was anathema to my upbringing. Like so many kids in college, I was finding myself by being anyone but myself. “Bubba” had it better and easier — nobody expected him to do much, and when he did, he was more heavily rewarded than his peers whose intelligence was taken for granted.

The habit of playing the poor, dumb country boy followed me into my young professional life, though. He became a scapegoat for my errors (or early adulthood laziness) in much the same way that my imaginary friends in childhood had. Couldn’t find the location of the press conference? “Bubba” to the rescue — he (I) was just too ignorant to locate it. Didn’t hand in a lesson plan? Well, in Hardup County, we never knew nothin’ bout no lesson plans or gradebooks. And so forth. I became so adept at this performance that slowly, almost unnoticeably, my persona was taking over. I began to chew tobacco, thicken my dialect, and walk with a gait that could only be described as an aimless amble. “Bubba” was consuming me.

This persona worked fairly well until I earned too many degrees. People generally stop believing you’re a backwater hillbilly once you’ve acquired a certain level of education. It’s hard to get labeled a redneck when multiple graduate-level diplomas are hanging on the wall behind you. So I’ve had to retire him, especially now, as I begin applying to doctoral programs. Sorry, Bubba, you’ll have to be put out to pasture, to use one of your colloquialisms. Thanks for your service, but like an outgrown security blanket, you need to be packed up. I’m closing the lid on the trunk of my personal history, and hopefully the stale cedar air will be too much for you. It’s time to live earnestly.

life, poetry, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Writing the Living

There once was a famous poet (Robert Penn Warren, I think) who said something like, “Poetry is found in the living of life.” Obviously I’m paraphrasing there, but I’m doing so to make a point.

Recently, like so many other people in this weird time, I was furloughed from my full-time university teaching job. I have another three weeks or so before the furlough is supposed to be over, and even that expectation may prove false — who knows?

In the meantime, I’ve been devoting myself to other endeavors: my podcast, for example, or the Skillshare classes I create. But this past weekend, as my in-laws took my sons for a sleepover, my wife and I undertook a different venture: Kayaking.

Kayak1

If you’ve followed this blog very long, you know I’m a pretty outdoorsy guy. I camp, fish, shoot sporting clays, and generally enjoy being in nature. But kayaking makes your mind different every time you go.

About this time last year, I was serving as a faculty member at the Word and Community writing retreat in Arbor Vitae, Wisconsin. While there, I kayaked almost daily. I’d set out at dawn and cross Trout Lake, visiting a small island in the middle of it. Some days the wind made the lake choppy, and staying stable was challenging. Other days, the water was like glass, the paddling was easy, and the big-windowed houses on shore seemed to smile at my presence there as loons sounded their cries in the distance.

That kayaking was different from the trip I took this weekend. For one thing, while at last year’s retreat, my mind was in a very “literary” place, and it was busy seeking inspiration (almost artificially) in minute details and newfound sensations brought on by foreign geography. Inspiration was found, but only when I allowed my mind to relax and stop trying to force poetry from every ripple in the water.

In contrast, this weekend was less about the literary and more about escape — Getting away from my stalled professional life, from my pessimism, and yes, even from my poetry. As much as I love writing, it has the propensity to consume me, too.

Kayak2

But what does all this have to do with Warren’s quote, you may ask? Kayaking is perhaps one of the best examples to demonstrate that writers need to go and do, not just write. The canonized masters of the 20th Century weren’t just sitting in their studies, thinking lofty thoughts and scribbling philosophical diatribes — they were men and women of action, and through those actions, they found literature.

Even if no immediate epiphanies arise from an activity, it is the living of life, not the recording of it, that counts. So often in our present, we think of travel and events in regards to their photographic potential. How will this trip or this exercise look on social media? Maybe it’s time we started enjoying things simply for their essence again. Rather than speculating about what kind of poem, story, essay, or photograph something will create, can we just live? Because I can promise you, if Warren is right (and I believe he is), inspiration will come to us. When our minds are clear and our worries are fewer, the words will arrive. In the meantime, there’s a new day ahead. Let’s seize it.

Kayak3

life, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

E.B. and Me

One of the essays I most love to teach is  “Once More to the Lake” by E.B. White. In that short essay, White recounts lake trips he took with his father each summer, and he tells the reader about his own encounter with his son at the same lake. Throughout the essay, he sees his father in himself, and he sees himself in his son. The essay is full of vivid imagery (as one would expect from the author of Charlotte’s Web), and it muses fondly without straying into rank sentimentality. 

Last weekend, my wife, sons, and I went back to a lake house where I spent some summer days in my own youth. Much like White, I got to see history repeating itself. My boys discovered the joy of diving off a dock, feeling the white sand of the lake bottom against bare feet,  collapsing at night in the pleasant exertion of a day spent swimming, swinging from a rope swing, and soaking in Florida sunlight.

But there were differences, too. For one, my experiences at the lake house were usually large family affairs, surrounded by countless cousins and massive amounts of home-cooked food. People were busy skiing and knee-boarding, and it was hard to find a place that was not already occupied by beloved others. As much as I revel in the memories of those large family gatherings, this past weekend had several advantages over the bigger productions of my boyhood.

We were able to connect to one another in meaningful ways since it was only us. We played card games, watched a movie or two, and the rest of the time was spent on the lake or engaged in some form of relaxation. My sons used light-up swords to “duel” each other in the evening outside. We made memories. We conversed. We escaped.

And while part of me longs for the days of yesteryear, complete with now-departed family members and the squirt-gun spirit of boyish mischief, another part is deeply satisfied with this present — a time when I as a father can watch my sons discover the new-old joys of a near-summer day on the lake, one complete with colder morning water that warms gradually throughout the morning and into the afternoon.

I get it now, E.B. I’ve stepped into your shoes a little. I’ve felt the creep of age slowly maturing me from descendant into ancestor, and I’m okay with that. One day my boys will undoubtedly have similar feelings as generations continue to unfold. It’s the way things are meant to be.

 

life, poetry, publishing, teaching, Uncategorized, writers, writing

The Joy of Writerly Objects

With all due respect to Marie Kondo and other “organization” experts, I’m not making my space utterly devoid of stuff. Here’s why: Stuff has history. Stuff is full of inspiration, and sometimes it can make us think in ways we ordinarily wouldn’t. And finally, stuff has meaning. If a thing has beauty as well as function, then it ceases to be what some experts would call “clutter.”

My Smith-Corona Galaxie Twelve typewriter. Molon Labe, home arrangement experts. I dare you.

Now before you call Hoarders and report me, let me say that there’s an extent to everything. My study is not overflowing with so much junk that I can’t even move, let alone think. But I do have a number of objects that I keep because of their inherent aesthetic value. Here, I’d like to talk just a little about the items I hold dear as a writer, and how my practice might suffer without them.

An assortment of fountain pens by Waterman, Montblanc, Levenger, and other makers. Vital to step one of poem creation.

Good pens are the frontline workers of the creative life. When smooth ink is flowing freely, filling good paper with artfully rendered words, the whole experience of writing is improved. I prefer old-school fountain pens because they connect me to generations of great minds well before our all-things-temporary present. Watching a crafted nib do its work motivates a writer to do his work in an equally elegant way. On my podcast, I talk about how connecting to things by touch can result in artistic revelation, thereby generating more output (writing or otherwise). Good fountain pens are probably the prime examples of this idea in action, and they’re good for Socratic Journaling, another idea explored on my podcast.

Uncle Hy’s ashtray — historically used in the evenings, when he’d puff on his pipe after reading the paper.

Some of the stuff I keep has sentimental value. My Great Uncle Hy was a swell guy — he was a businessman through and through, and over his lifetime, he did well for himself. One relic of his that I’ve kept is the translucent heavy green glass ashtray he used when smoking his after-dinner pipe. While I’m not a smoker myself, I use it these days to hold the aforementioned fountain pens and other office sundries. It catches the light the same way it did when I was a boy and became fascinated by its color and brilliance. The memory of Uncle Hy and his industriousness keeps me going when I feel like slacking off.

The compass box — just because it’s cool.

Some things call out to you when you see them. Such was the case when I saw this little faux ivory box at The Oxford Exchange in downtown Tampa. It holds paper clips and thumbtacks mostly, but it also reminds me to stay true in my direction. Its weight is pleasantly permanent, and opening it is always an experience filled with possibility, even though I’m well aware of what’s inside. There’s a kind of Indiana Jones mystique about it, so yes, it stays.

This briefcase has so many stories behind it…

My leather briefcase was given to me by my mother after I received my first master’s degree. Over the years, it has been to Lisbon, Portugal, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and lots of other spots. It holds everything I need, and frankly, it has become an extension of me — rare is the day when I walk onto campus without it. It even smells like literature.

So there you have it — an assortment of objects and keepsakes that make my literary life a little more inspiring. Minimalists and Feng Shui practitioners take note: These items might not be totally utilitarian, but they absolutely influence my creative process. Maybe you’ll say I should be willing to part with some of what I’ve mentioned here — my reasoning is too maudlin or clingy for your taste. Therein lies the beauty of stuff: Shakespeare was right when he said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I enjoy beholding everything you’ve seen here. End of story.

Are there things that you can’t part with? Items that you’d feel a little more empty without? Use the comments section below to tell about your most cherished or prized creative possession…

life, poetry, Uncategorized, writing

Quarantine: The Ultimate Family Fellowship

architecture clouds daylight driveway
Not my house, but makes the point. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Earlier this year, I wrote about my “travel fast,” explaining how 2020 would be a year in which I would abstain from literary workshops, conferences, seminars, or retreats. My plan has been (and continues to be) allowing connection with my family to motivate and inspire new writing. Well, God sure has an interesting sense of humor:

“What’s that, son? You want to spend more time with your family? POOF! Here you go. I will enable you to work from home, school your sons at home, worship at home, give poetry workshops from home, exercise at home, and….let’s see…pretty much anything else you want to do — it’s going to have to happen within the four walls of your house. You’re welcome.”

Lest anyone think I’m making light of coronavirus, let me say that I’m not. I know that people are dying. I know that many are ill in ways they’ve never been before. And I know that a global pandemic is nothing to laugh about. We in the US are blessed to have largely first-world concerns that sound an awful lot like whining to those less fortunate. That being said, the situations we find ourselves in as locked-down Americans deserve a moment or two of levity.

Thus far, my boys, my wife, and I have: 1.) Put together jigsaw puzzles, 2.) Played countless rounds of Uno, Life, Monopoly, and Trivial Pursuit, 3.) Gone for hikes in the remote area near the creek, 4.) Ridden our bikes a couple of miles a day, and 5.) attended “online church,” an experience that has really expanded our definition of “sacred.”

But throughout all this, the discoveries we’ve made have been meaningful: My oldest son, a budding TikTok celebrity whose following is somewhere around 45,000, has been entertaining us with his theatrical abilities. He randomly performs stand-up routines, imitations, and monologues. My youngest son, the future architect/lawyer/billionaire, has been learning to code and has had extensive video conversations with his favorite cousin who shares much of his personality and interests. These two have their own “secret detective agency” and hatch plans via Facetime. Much of their dialogue has been inspired by the book series The Mysterious Benedict Society.

The hero during our isolation has been my wife: A healthcare worker, she goes to her clinic day after day, exposing herself to potential infection so that people can receive the care they need, now and anytime. When she returns in the evenings, she immediately showers and sanitizes to protect all of us. About a week ago, a known COVID-19 infected patient coughed near her. We’ve been watching and waiting ever since. Nothing so far, thankfully, but…the risk is always there. To exacerbate her situation, she’s also recovering from surgery that she had about three weeks ago. Without going into graphic detail, the operation was moderately invasive. Nonetheless, she presses on. She is our resident saint and our honored queen.

Our afternoons have been the most remarkable feature of this weird time: I’ve been reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 with the boys. We each have a copy of the text, and via Audible, we have Tim Robbins reading the book to us. We follow along, pause to discuss and reflect, and analyze the book’s characters, plot, tone, and other details. Supplementing this study, we’ve watched old episodes of Ray Bradbury Theater, a t.v. show based upon the great author’s exhilarating short stories (see YouTube). The boys find commonalities between the novel we’ve been reading and the smaller bite-sized narratives on screen. This has given rise to discussions of our present society and culture, as one might imagine. It’s also allowed us to practice some amateur psychology on the characters Bradbury invented. My oldest son developed a five-step treatment plan for Mildred (Montag’s wife in the novel), for example.

Will this quarantine generate poems? Probably. I don’t plan to write about all the kinds of things that have occurred to so many others — how this moment demonstrates our universal humanity, how politics are utterly futile in times like these, how the family unit remains the foundation of our society. These big ideas, while true, will undoubtedly be overdone, and frankly, poems that are written with an agenda in mind rarely succeed as art.

No, my poems that will spring from this strange point in history will probably dwell upon subjects like those I mentioned before — the heroism of my wife, the creativity of my sons, the little day-to-day tasks and events that are breaks from our non-coronavirus life routines. Crisis, despite its horrors, is a rescue from the mundane. It shakes us from our civilized, programmed, humdrum existences into realization of our human fragility. For all of us, this epiphany has been, perhaps, the most monumental lesson.

I never intended for this blog entry to become a gratitude journal, and yet, as I look back over it,  it certainly has leaned in that direction. There’s much to be thankful for, and that’s undoubtedly another lesson of this period. As we inhabit the most intimate spaces of our lives with those we hold closest, we re-learn the value of connection. We are reminded that, if everything else perished, our interpersonal bonds would matter most. Hold your dear ones tight, embrace the temporary inconveniences, and soon enough, we will all look back on this historical hiccup a little wiser, a little better.

life, poetry, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Eulogy for the UT MFA Program

hooding “I feel like a friend has died,” I told someone today. The news came by email: The MFA program that helped make me the poet I have become will be closing. In an announcement with all the usual logistical wording, the interim director of University of Tampa’s MFA program, a man I admire and deeply appreciate, relayed the somber message. The alumni Facebook page lit up with equal parts horror, shock, and grief. How do we say goodbye to something that has so profoundly impacted us, not just as writers, but as human beings?

I’m just old-school enough to try to process this tragedy with a blog post. Some of my fellow grads will probably pen deep and artful poetry and creative prose, but the old newspaper reporter in me reaches for something a bit more journalistic. So here are the facts:

Without the UT MFA program, I never would have:

— Written three of my four books of poetry
— Studied under brilliant people like Erica Dawson, Peter Meinke, and Sandra Beasley
— Gone to Lisbon, Portugal in 2016; Amherst, Massachusetts in 2015; or Santa Fe in 2013
— Been hired to lead poetry workshops in the northwoods of Wisconsin last summer
— Gotten a job as a college professor, which later led to a higher ed leadership position
— Met many of the good friends I still contact and share news with
— Hosted a guest author series for three of the schools I’ve served
— Networked with influential figures in the literary community who helped me greatly
— Made permanent happy memories at places like the Dali Museum and Ybor City
— Learned what it smells like inside the minarets of Plant Hall

I’m sure there are other “never-would-haves” that exist, but these are just the first ones that come to mind. I think of all the good that classes and workshops there have done. I think of the people whose lives, like mine, would be radically different had they never attended. I think of the great and meaningful conversations that occurred in unexpected places. And I do not fail to consider an apparent irony: So many of our seminars and craft lectures were held in classrooms at the school of business.

Now we hear that business is the very killer of our program. Higher education is changing, they say. People don’t want to learn for the sake of learning; they want a pathway to a job, and it better pay well. Who cares about literature, culture, and liberal arts tradition? Well, I do. And I know a bunch of people who agree with me.

We will shed our tears in private and move on with our literary lives, knowing well that we wouldn’t even have such existences had it not been for the University of Tampa MFA program. Like all deaths, this one will never leave us. We will simply adjust to being without as one does after the departure of a beloved. And this program and its people are dearly, dearly beloved.

life, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Family Life as Poetry Workshop, or Why I Won’t be Attending Any Retreats or Conferences This Year

familyshot

Some poets tend to speak of their families as obligations that prevent true creativity. There are fellowships aimed at helping parent-poets escape their roles as mom or dad and focus exclusively on “the work,” whatever that might be. But as one who spent two weeks in 2019 away from my wife and sons, let me tell you what I’ve discovered:

It is only amid the adventures of family life that true poetry is created. The rearing of children, the complexities of marriage, and the shared experiences that go with both produce the stuff of great writing. This isn’t some pseudo-inspirational fluff; it is truth found through living.

In my workplace, I’m fortunate to be given generous vacation time every year. I could spend those hours communing with nature, hearing other writers, discussing the intricacies of composition, or…I could make memories for my family at home or away. Whether we go to the beach, the mountains, or even Lisbon, Portugal (see prior posts), the time we spend will forge moments ingrained in our history. And to me, building fond recollections for my wife and sons trumps circular conversations about craft or melancholy publishing panels.

Certainly, solitude has its place in the life of a writer. It serves as a kind of social fast, and science tells us that fasting is an important component in our human lives. But for sheer generative power, nothing holds a candle to family time. All the prompt-riddled workshops and cliche-filled seminars can’t compare to seeing one’s offspring make the realizations that accompany maturing. To watch the generational cycles continue, to spend time in earnest dialogue with loved ones — these are the elements of inspiration.

For my writer friends who are attending name-brand conferences or literary events this year, I wish you all the best. Have fun hearing from people whose limited celebrity is often greater than their wisdom. I hope you listen to a line during a reading that sparks your innovation. I hope you network with folks you’ve long admired. And I hope you don’t come back empty-handed.

I resolve this year, this 2020, to be present in daily life with my family. I resolve to observe every detail, absorb every minute, and allow my literary endeavors to follow my role as husband and father, not the other way around. I have a new manuscript that’s out there, and hopefully this will be its year. But even if it isn’t, my greater hope is that the impressions I leave on the lives of those closest to me will be indelible. As Robert Penn Warren once said, “How do poems grow? They grow out of your life.” It’s 2020, and it’s time to go live it.

 

life, poetry, publishing, writers, writing

Avoiding the Imaginary Audience

crowd in front of people playing musical instrument during nighttime
Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

If you’ve been writing very long, you’ve probably experienced a condition common to all creatives: the imaginary audience. This figment group includes the “perfect” reader, the inherent critic, the smarter-than-you skeptic, and perhaps a few others you’ve conjured up. In all actuality, none of these audience members exists, and even if they did, it wouldn’t matter.

Let’s debunk the “perfect reader” myth first. Even your spouse, your parent, or your BFF is not going to deeply absorb everything you think you’ve put into your work. They will validate you and compliment your creativity, but even the most attuned reader will never “get” every ounce of meaning you’ve loaded into your words. So, to believe that there’s someone out there who will “suck all the marrow out” of your diction is a lovely notion, but ultimately fallacious. Sorry.

Next, the inherent critic: an invention of the ego just as potent as the perfect reader. “Someone out there is going to inspect and criticize every single word I’ve written.” Rubbish. Even if that person existed, consider how empty their life must be if it’s devoted to condemning the work of one other person. More than likely, the person who led you to believe that an inherent critic is out there is suffering from another symptom: jealousy. That workshop curmudgeon who noticed every comma placement is an aberration — they knew your work was better than theirs, and they vented their frustration through the microscopic pedantry that becomes the last resort of losers.

The skeptic probably exists, but not to the severity you’ve imagined. There’s always the person who’s concerned with the literal truth and the hard-and-fast reality of things. They’re present in every workshop, and they’ll point out things like how “scissors” and “shears” are not synonyms, based on their vast life experience. It’s sad, really. These are the same people who critiqued cartoons in their childhood, chiding the television with lines like “That could never happen.” Don’t get hung up on their feedback.

Being honest with yourself, you’ll find you know your “real” audience: family members, friends, long-time fans, and maybe a stranger or two who stumbled upon your work. Don’t let the strangers dominate. You’re writing for flesh-and-blood people — not characters. Who celebrates your victories? Who buys your stuff and appreciates it? Who has known you the longest? These are the people you write for. Forget the doubters, and aim for the believers.